LONDON: Duolingo has confirmed it is discussing with the UK government plans that would allow visa applicants around the world to take an online English-language test through the company’s popular language-learning app for less than $50.
Duolingo’s CEO and founder, Luis von Ahn, said during an interview on Sunday that the business is ready to offer “cheap and secure English-language tests” to people who are required to pass one to work or study in the UK.
“Harvard, Stanford, MIT … and I believe there are 75 universities in the UK that accept the test,” he said. “But we’re not yet accepted by the UK government. I think they’re coming around to agreeing that online tests are good.
“We’ve been talking to them. I don’t know how fast the UK government moves. My experience is that all governments move very slowly. So I don’t know how long it will take but I think that will be really good for the world if it happens.”
Duolingo has been offering English-language tests to students seeking admission to universities since 2016. Von Ahn said that initially, some universities were reluctant about the company’s proposal over concerns that the tests would not be fair or secure. But the increased use of online technology during the COVID-19 pandemic helped overcome much of the skepticism and accelerate the adoption of online tests as an alternative to expensive in-person examinations.
“I applied to come to the US to study,” said Von Ahn, who is originally from Guatemala. “In my country, they ran out of these tests so I had to fly to a neighboring country, El Salvador, which in the late 1990s was a war zone. It cost me $1,000 just to fly there and take the test. It was ridiculous.”
Currently, people who apply for visas to work or study in the UK are required to demonstrate their English proficiency by taking a “secure English language test” at an accredited center in one of 134 countries and territories worldwide.
This means that people in 67 countries — including Mali, Niger, Uruguay, Paraguay and Guatemala, as well as many Caribbean and Pacific islands — have to travel abroad to take the test.
Von Ah said that in addition to its mission to “make language education accessible to everybody,” Duolingo wants, through its online English-language test, to address this inequality among countries by making it easier and cheaper for all visa applicants to take the test.
According to market and consumer data company Statista, 239,987 work visas and 432,279 student visas were issued in 2021 to people applying to enter the UK. Of the latter, 27,520 went to students from the MENA region.
Von Ahn founded Duolingo with business partner Severin Hacker in 2012, quickly establishing himself as one of Silicon Valley’s leading entrepreneurs.
The California-based education-technology firm is now valued at $4 billion and offers tuition in more than 40 languages. In the past few years the company has expanded the services it offers beyond traditional language-learning courses. As well as the Duolingo English Test it now offers Duolingo ABC, which helps children learn to read, and is preparing to launch a math app next year.